Sister Nivedita was not only a great nationalist but also a great human being. She made India her home after meeting Swami Vivekananda and dedicated her entire life to the serve the mankind. She was anointed with several sobriquets in her short life. While Rabindranath Tagore described her ‘Lokmata’, her mentor Swami Vivekananda called her ‘Lioness’. She was also called, ‘Agnisikha’ or flame of fire by Sri Aurobindo, ‘Champion of India’ in England and ‘Sister’ by all the people of India.
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Born in Ireland as Margaret Noble in 1867, her father Samuel Noble was a priest in an Irish Church. She often joined her grand father and her father who used to visit homes and novels of the poor in rendering service to them. Margaret lost her father when she was just 10 years old but her tenderness and sympathy remained. She did her schooling at Church boarding school in London. Later, she attended Halifax College where she studied various subjects including arts, literature, music, and physics. She was deeply influenced by the headmistress of the college who taught her the value of sacrifice, and service. At the age of 17, she became a teacher. Subsequently, she established a school in Wimbledon and became popular for unique methods of teaching. She also went to become a prolific writer. Her writings started getting published in periodicals and newspapers, soon she became a known name among the London intellects. She also studied various books on religion including Buddhism and other books from the East.
Meeting the monk
Her life took an unprecedented turn in 1895 after she met Swami Vivekananda who had come from America to visit London. She also came to know about his awe-inspiring address at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago which had captured the hearts and minds of millions of people. She even attended various events of the monk.
With her keen interest in the teachings of East, she was enamoured by the Vivekananda’s speech. She raised a lot of questions whose answers dispelled her doubts and established faith and reverence for the speaker. Nivedita wrote in 1904 to a friend, “Suppose he had not come to London that time! Life would have been like a headless dream, for I always knew that I was waiting for something. I always said that a call would come. And it did.’ Her penchant for learning, serving and devoting prompted Swami to extend her an invitation to visit India.
Margaret was overwhelmed at his request. She did not feel worthy of the huge task, but Swami Vivekananda exhorted and reassured her. Consequently, Margaret resolved to dedicate herself to this calling. Margaret knew that the challenges were great as there was poverty, ignorance, and narrow-mindedness in India. When she came to India on January 28, 1898. Swami Vivekananda himself came to Calcutta port to receive her. Margaret visited Dakshineshwar temple, the place where Ramakrishna did his sadhana.
From Margaret to sister Nivedita
On 11 March 1898, Swami Vivekananda introduced Sister Nivedita to the people of Calcutta. In his own words, the great saint said – “England has sent us another gift in Miss Margaret Noble.” Swami Vivekananda formally initiated Margaret in the vow of Brahmacharya (lifelong celibacy) and gave her the name of “Nivedita” on March 25, 1898. It was a first in the history of India that a Western woman was received into an Indian monastic order. She also met Sarada Devi, wife and spiritual consort of Ramakrishna, who, surpassing all language and cultural barriers, embraced her as “khooki” or “little girl” in Bengali.
Life in India
She dedicated her entire life into the emancipation of poor and underprivileged. Sister Nivedita started educating the masses, especially the girls who were majorly deprived of education. With an intention to open India’s first girl school, she travelled to England and USA to raise funds.
Finally, she succeeded in her endeavour in 1989 and later went door to door asking girls to join the school. Sending girls to school was a taboo then, so the only students she had were widows and adult women as most of the male members refused to send their daughters to school.
Deeply saddened by British oppression again Indian, she realised that India in the state it was then, could never develop self-pride and break the shackles of poverty and ignorance. She worked to inspire the masses through the power of her writings and her fine oratory skills exhorting people to fight for independence. To invoke the spirit of nationalism, she introduced Vande Mataram as a daily prayer in her school. She also exposed Lord Curzon of detesting East culture as inferior to that of West, leading him to publicly apologise to the masses. She also toured across India to motivate them to build a feeling of respect for their culture and heritage.
Her selfless service also came to notice during the plague epidemic in 1899, she volunteered and nursed the patients while inspiring the youth to render support in spreading awareness. She formed a dedicated team of workers to fight the plague. These squads of them dedicatedly went in all directions cleaning the streets and nursing the sick.
She influenced a long list of poets and writers of that time including Abanindranath Tagore, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Havell and Subramanya Bharti were greatly inspired by her and contributed to arts and social work in the country. She lent support to Annie Besant and edited Aurobindo Ghosh’s nationalist newspaper. She encouraged Dr. Jagdish Chandra Bose and even helped him financially.
She was deeply involved in the service activities during the partition of Bengal, the floods, and the famine. However, her untiring schedule took a toll on her health. Her close friends including the monks of the Ramakrishna Ashram nursed her but her health continued to deteriorate. Sister Nivedita died on October 13, 1911 at the age of 43.